It’s not often I agree with columnist Win Gruening. Not only do I concur with his assessment of the opportunity to increase independent visitors to Southeast, but I want to take it a step further. I believe Juneau can become the adventure mecca for small boat cruising and independent travelers. We can put a new mark on the growing (pre-pandemic) trend of so-called “geo-tourism.” Geo-tourists are visitors who are inclined to “seek culture and unique experiences when they travel,” according to the Bureau of Land Management.
As Gruening points out, it’s doubtful that any large cruise ship will be sailing to Juneau this summer, even if there is a congressional fix to allow large cruise ships to bypass a Canadian stop. The lack of large ships this summer provides an opportunity to switch focus and explore ways to maximize and document the economic impact of small boat visitors. Why would we want to do this? Because shore side tourism related business are hurting and small cruise vessel passengers spend far more money in port than the average cruise ship passenger.
Small cruise vessel passengers travel by air at least one way and in most cases both ways, requiring overnight stays in local hotels. These visitors have additional opportunity to dine in restaurants and frequent galleries and gift shops. According to a 2016 State Department of Commerce study, (titled “Trends and Opportunities in Alaska’s Small Cruise Vessel Market”) approximately 20-25% of these passengers spend additional time in Alaska on a land tour.
To try to get a sense of the comparative spending between a small cruise vessel passenger and large ship passenger, I did not find any one definitive analysis. However, the 2016 state report cited above, did reference the accounting estimates provided by a small cruise operator. Looking at guest spending in shops, guest shoreside activities, lodging, dining and car rentals, one small boat operator estimated that each of his 700 guests spent $528 while docked in Juneau in 2015. By comparison, a 2016 report prepared for Travel Juneau by the McDowell Group (titled “Juneau Visitor Profile an Economic Impact Study”) found that the average large cruise ship passenger spent $162 while in Juneau. Accounting for the different reporting years and study approach, I would say it’s safe to say that a small cruise vessel passenger will likely spend three to four times as much as each large cruise ship passenger. This is a difference worth building on.
The same can be said for the independent traveler. The 2016 McDowell Study showed that independent travelers coming to Juneau only spend on average of $800 per trip.
Knowing that because of COVID-19 the number of independent travelers and small vessel sailings will be fewer than normal, the question Juneau needs to focus on is how can we maximize the impact of these visitors? With no competition from the large vessels are there more shoreside opportunities, such as whale watching, now available to these visitors? Can the visitor industry create more package opportunities, helicopter tours, etc., before and/or after the small vessel sailing? Can local artists and craft persons be given an onboard opportunity to show off their talent and wares? Can independent travelers access tours that previously had to be booked on the cruise ship? What can we learn from the summer of 2021 to better promote Juneau as North America’s No. 1 port for small vessel cruises?
It’s in exploring these types of questions where Juneau can make some tourism lemonade from the lemons that the pandemic has dealt to our visitor industry. It is in this regard that I suggest the Juneau Economic Development Council or Travel Juneau host a virtual geo-tourism forum wherein the operators of these small cruise vessels (in 2015 there were nine) could explore packages and promotions with Juneau’s many shoreside tour operators and business.
• Kate Troll, former Juneau Assembly member, used to own a bed and breakfast and served as a naturalist for two years for Gastineau Guiding. Recently, she and her husband served as local host for four UnCruise sailings.